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Now that I’m nearing the end of my bucket list, I realize that it’s not very long. But unlike most peoples’ bucket lists, each item on mine has taken me 3–10 years to accomplish. LOL.

I enrolled in flight school when I was 17. I was the youngest aspiring pilot at the BOI airport at the time, and the tower always told me I sounded like a 12-year-old over the radio. I still sound like a 12-year-old, but whatever, that’s beside the point. Maybe that’s why the military pilots assigned me the call sign “Queen Kid.” Like, couldn’t they have chosen something cooler? I don’t know, “Savage” or something along those lines.

While training, most people have one flight instructor for each license or rating they earn…well, for my private pilot’s license, I had three.

Instructor #1 was the bane of my existence. I seem to attract douchebags, so in hindsight this doesn’t surprise me. Parker was 26 at the time, thought he was the bee’s knees, and he was more focused on his own aviation career than helping his students progress. Young and dumb, I trusted him.

Getting a private pilot’s license was a lot like driver’s ed in terms of classroom time. I had ground school and flight time usually within the same day, and I expected this journey to take about six months since I was still in high school, had swim practice twice a day, taught dance class at night, was traveling a lot with my honor choir, and I’m just going to stop there before you think I was a child nutcase.

My final exam was to be composed of a written exam, a 4-hour oral exam, and a 4-hour flight exam with an FAA examiner. I was nervous. Parker and I had gone through everything at a relatively quick pace, and I had thought it was because I was heading to college out of state soon and he was doing me a favor.

Two weeks before my final checkride to get licensed, Parker dropped me as his student to focus on training some new guy from Europe.

Two. Weeks. Before. My. Checkride.

Yup, he left me stranded and alone like an orphaned child. I won’t ever forget his smug face when he told me. Not all men in Boise are callous, by the way. If you’ve read my Protection Dog Series, there is hope for mankind in this city. But Parker? He pawned me off to another instructor so he could frolic in the skies with his European stallion that was obviously more important than me.

William was my second instructor and he is one of my favorite people in the world. Honestly, I just get along better with people much older than me. In the two weeks leading up to my final exams, he taught me everything Parker hadn’t. He was strict in the cockpit and forced me to follow commercial pilot tolerances on turns and elevations. We practiced nonstop to prepare for my checkride.

When my checkride finally came, I failed it. Big time.

I passed the written exam. Yay me. But I failed the oral exam.

We didn’t even have a chance to go into the sky so I could prove my awesomeness because I freaking CROAKED when my examiner asked me how to recover from a stall. Everyone knows how to recover from a stall. I remember just looking at him knowing that the exam wasn’t going well.

I felt incredibly pressured to show Parker I could do this without him, and I left the airport disappointed.

My heart sank when the FAA examiner said, “Let’s try this again in a few weeks.”

I was about to head across the country for school, I didn’t have a few weeks! I was incredibly embarrassed that I hadn’t passed. I was even more embarrassed that I couldn’t describe a stall recovery when I knew it like a bedtime prayer.

After a few months of being grounded, I was ready to fly again. When I was back home for break, I was determined to try again. William and I had worked so hard leading up to my first round of examinations, but deep down I knew that I hadn’t been ready. I was just too ignorant to see that. After learning so much from William in such a short amount of time, it was obvious to me that I needed proper instruction. I wanted William as my flight instructor for my second attempt. The only other choice I had was a man named Rick, but there was no way I’d survive him—he was the instructor everyone feared, and I feared him too.

But because I failed my oral exam with William listed as my official instructor, he couldn’t continue my journey with me. Apparently if you have two fails under your name as an instructor, it’s a bad thing. I was already William’s first fail, so yeah, that didn’t make me feel very good. Not only did Parker toss me to the curb, but him rushing me through my training only to pass me off to William at the last minute had the potential to negatively affect William’s career as well.

My last option was Rick, and I begged William for anyone else. I had flown with Rick a few times before during intermittent proficiency checks where a different instructor needed to fly with me to evaluate my skills, and the only thing he ever said to me was “watch your elevation.” “Watch your elevation.”

I WAS WATCHING MY ELEVATION.

And I thought William was strict with tolerances? While William held me to commercial pilot standards, Rick held me to airline pilot standards.

Rick was the chief flight instructor, the most knowledgeable pilot, and in my opinion one of the greatest aviators of our time. And against my will, he was officially my new instructor.

Sitting in the cockpit with him as my instructor for the first time was one of the worst experiences of my life.

Usually, attitude recovery exercises are gentle. After asking a student to close their eyes, the instructor will maneuver the plane around in an attempt to cause disorientation. And then they will ask the student to recover the plane from an awkward bank or attitude.

Hahaha no. Rick practically blindfolded me. Then he spun us around for long minutes. I’m sure there were some G’s in there because I was a freaking magician levitated off my seat for most of the time. I was either hovering over my seat or pressed deep into the cushion, delirious and disoriented. He banked the aircraft into a near stall, finally gifted me with my sight again, and asked me to recover as we descended toward the ground. I could see the cows in the field below me.

With other instructors, these attitude recovery exercises were always super easy because when we approached low speeds, the stall horn blared in warning and that was when most would ask for smooth recoveries out of somewhat-awkward positions.

When Rick and I were in the plane together, that stall horn was always screaming at me. We flew on the brink of stalling every day. He pushed me to perfect my maneuvers further than anyone else in terms of flying. And he didn’t just quiz me when it came to practicing for the oral exam—he taught me everything he knew and asked me to regurgitate it back to him the following day.

I’m happy to say that I passed my oral exam the second time. The examiner couldn’t stop my blabbering—Rick’s lectures had rubbed off on me. The oral exam only took about 90 minutes and then we were in the air for the flight exam. I actually had to fly to a neighboring airport to meet the examiner because he wasn’t located in Boise.

Rick waved me farewell as I took off and told me to not come back unless I had my private license. I want to say he was joking, but it’s very likely he wasn’t.

He also told me he was proud of me.

When he said those words, I knew I was going to pass.

Since earning my private license, I’ve flown with William and Rick many times. Rick was also my instructor for my instrument rating (IFR), my backcountry certification, and he’s going to be my instructor for my commercial license and every advanced rating I ever get—but I haven’t told him that yet. I mean, do I have to warn him at this point? It’s an unspoken agreement between us.

I promised myself I would always be as loyal to him as he has been to me. He didn’t give up on me, and he didn’t back away even though there was a very good possibility I could fail that godawful oral exam again. We always learn the most from the people who are hardest on us. Rick was exactly what I needed in an instructor, and I credit all of my advanced skills to him.

He’s my mentor, one of my greatest friends, and one of my heroes. And who knows what’s in the cards for me? Maybe I’ll follow in his footsteps and become a certified flight instructor so I can unleash my acquired wrath on some young, aspiring pilot. Rick will probably be my instructor for that too.